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Bring back the typewriter? Write on!

There was a time when the typewriter was a marvel of cutting edge technology. But look at a typewriter today and the first thing that comes to mind is “old technology” - with what level affection depending on where one stands on the typewriter affection spectrum, from “good riddance” to moist-eyed nostalgia to retro appreciation.

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" In addition to [the sound], there is the sheer physical pleasure of typing; it feels just as good as it sounds, the muscles in your hands control the volume and cadence of the aural assault… the room echoes with the staccato beat of your synapses."
Tom Hanks, Hollywood star

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the typewriter’s invention. By common acclaim, American newspaper editor Christopher Latham Sholes invented the typewriter in 1867. Based on the Sholes model – which included the QWERTY keyboard – E. Remington & Sons of New York produced the world’s first commercial typewriter, the Remington No.1, in 1873.

I love typewriters. For me, typewriters and writing are part and parcel of the one love affair. My first job as a journalist, in 1982, was with the Numurkah Leader in country Victoria. In the century-old building was the reporter’s office – my own office; the hell of hot-desking decades away – and on the desk was a phone, a spike, a stack of A5 copy paper and a typewriter.

Like the office itself, the typewriter had seen better days but that made me love it all the more. I adored writing stories on that valiant little machine, from front-page leads to last-minute “fillers” deep inside the paper written only to obliterate unwanted empty white space.

I’m not alone – particularly as retro technology, from vinyl albums to board games to actual notebooks (not portable computers) are back. See David Sax’s new book The Revenge of Analog – Real Things and Why They Matter.

Staving off extinction by the skin of its ribbon, but a museum piece nonetheless, the typewriter is not finished with us yet, in part thanks to its avid devotees.

Hollywood legend Tom Hanks loves typewriters. In October he will release his first book, ‘Uncommon Type: Some Stories’, a collection of 17 short stories, each themed around the typewriter.

Hanks, who collects vintage typewriters, says of his vast collection: “They are each different in design, action and sound – each one stamps into paper a permanent trail of imagination through keys, hammers, cloth and dye.”

The replacement of the typewriter by video display units (VDUs) in journalism newsrooms by the mid-80s was swift, universal and without pang – well, just enough pang for the journalists’ union to win a 16 per cent VDU allowance.

“Office automation” was the catchcry of the 1980s in workplaces around the world and media proprietors were no less in the thrall of its promise.

Data-capture technology so seamlessly superseded typewriters that the typewriter’s seminal role in modernising the flow of internal and external communication on an industrial scale – and in doing so bringing many more women to the workforce – was instantly consigned to history. There were no lingering farewells.

The typewriter became obsolete in the 1980s and by the 1990s had all but disappeared from workplaces. They quickly acquired a certain retro chic – hip and happening bistros used old typewriters bought at garage sales to type funky menus and kidnappers used the old writing machines to give their ransom notes a bit of flair.

New typewriters are not easy to come by. India was the last major market for typewriters and in 2011 Godrej and Boyce claimed to be the world’s last manufacturer of typewriters when it closed its Mumbai production plant. As recently as 2009 Godrej and Boyce was still producing 12,000 machines a year. At the time of closure, its primary customers included “defence agencies, courts and government offices”.

Electronics manufacturer Brother announced the closure of its typewriter factory in Wales in 2012, the year following the closure of the Godrej and Boyce plant. The honour of seeing the last Brother typewriter off the production line went to Edward Bryan who realised he had become a Trivial Pursuit question: "I can always say now…that I've made the last typewriter in the UK."

Brother’s last UK-made typewriter was donated to London's Science Museum.

US company Swintec outsources the manufacture of its branded typewriters to China, Japan and Indonesia. Its biggest market is prisons. Presumably, under President Donald Trump, those typewriters will now be made in the US...

Of his passion, Hanks revealed “the tactile pleasure of typing old school is incomparable to what you get from a de rigueur laptop” in an article for the New York Times, I Am TOM. I Like to TYPE. Hear That? 

“In addition to [the sound of typing], there is the sheer physical pleasure of typing; it feels just as good as it sounds, the muscles in your hands control the volume and cadence of the aural assault so that the room echoes with the staccato beat of your synapses,” he wrote.

Hanks has also released an app (yes, yes, I get the irony…), Hanx Writer, which “recreates the experience of a manual typewriter, but with the ease and speed of an iPad”. 

Nostalgia and aesthetics aside, typewriters can still play a constructive role in the modern office. Imagine if you had one on your desk or, if you are one of the chosen few, your office. Given that pre-loved and reconditioned typewriters are relatively easy to buy, it’s worth spending around $300 to see if they really can be put to work for you. Consider these potential uses for the humble typewriter:

Type it with feeling 

Instead of using intra-office email (we all know nobody reads them to the end), use a typewriter and, of course, appropriate note paper, to write your message. Typewritten notes and letters of a personal nature were once considered uncouth but typewriters are now so far removed from “smart office” technology that a thank-you, do-you-want-to-have-lunch or congratulatory note from your typewriter would be considered personal, quaint and very couth.

Read it and bin it

 When did everything we write at work become so important it has to be archived in the company’s vast database, never to be found, thought of or seen again? The memo calling the next meeting and the agenda for that meeting can easily be produced on your typewriter, photocopied and appropriately binned after the meeting. No, not wasteful - the back of the memo can be used for jargon bingo during the meeting.

For your eyes only

The more business is done in cyber space, the greater the potential for cyber-crime. Reverting to the typewriter to create super-sensitive documents can minimise the risk of company secrets being stolen. In 2013, Russia’s Federal Guard Service purchased 20 Triumph Adler typewriters to create paper documents as a means of avoiding foreign electronic surveillance. Former security chief Nikolai Kovalev explained: “[F]rom the point of view of keeping secrets, the most primitive method [of creating documents] is preferred: a human hand with a pen or a typewriter."

Line items

Typewriters are perfect for addressing envelopes and for creating last-minute name tags, messages for your notice board and impromptu signs for your door or partition.

It is often said that business is no place for nostalgia. As if the alternative of soulless, open-plan savannahs is something to aspire to. A few typewriters in the office reminds us not everything about yesteryear is so bad. They will add a bit of tradition, history, a bit of colour, a bit of old-school productivity. And the noise? I’d rather hear the clack-clack-clack of someone belting out a missive than listen to someone munching on a carrot or blathering on about their domestic mundanity.

Note: BlueNotes is working on a typewriter interface.

Leo D'Angelo Fisher specialises in the practice and malpractice of management. In more than three decades as a business journalist he has worked for BRW, The Australian Financial Review and a range of other business magazines in Australia and Hong Kong. His sometimes acerbic observations of management and its fads has brought him a wide following. He blogs at leodangelofisher.com.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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